October 25th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. ###
Forest fire in the Crowsnest Pass
Banding together: how a collective effort saved the community
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Robb Powell Photo
October 17th fire in Crowsnest Pass
Pass Herald Reporter
Partway through the month of October, with cooler temperatures and a forecast of rain, it’s safe to assume that most people didn’t expect the roughly 100-hectare fire that came perilously close to Coleman, causing crews to work tirelessly over multiple days to get it under control.

Dry conditions compounded by high winds made it challenging for crews to conduct operations, says Fire Chief/Manager of Protective Services with Crowsnest Pass Fire/Rescue Jesse Fox.

“High hazard from the winds created a lot of havoc with the electrical systems, with the ability to function and fight the fires. We responded to them as we would to any call regarding grass or brush fires and utilized training and experience to effectively put them out,” says Fox.

Originating out of the Devon area in the early afternoon of Tuesday, October 17, ‘the Coleman Wildfire’ burned east and north between the Sentinel Industrial Park and Coleman, pushed by strong winds. According to Travis Fairweather, wildfire information officer with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, the rate of spread was 60 metres/second. The cause of fire is still under investigation by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
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The local fire department had also responded to a smaller fire between 18 Ave. and the railway tracks in Coleman earlier in the day.

Many different agencies contributed to the successful handling of the fire in their own way, both on and off the fire site, from those who fought the fire hands-on - like our local Crowsnest Pass Fire/Rescue, RCMP, retired and neighbouring firefighters and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry - to off-site help that may not have been as visible, but still impactful - Frank Slide Interpretive Centre for allowing the municipality to use their facility to house the Emergency Coordination Centre and food providers that donated food.

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry were working hand in hand in unified command with the Crowsnest Pass Fire/Rescue.

“We’ve been on a lot of fires where it hasn’t always gone as smoothly with multiple agencies, but with this one, it’s just such a good relationship established,” says Fairweather. “They work so well together and things have been really smooth. It was great in keeping the fire fighting moving along and working as efficiently as possible.”

The fire brought together brave professionals from different parts and institutions of Alberta, young and old, experienced and new. It’s this collective effort where each person, each institution was instrumental in contributing to the successful end to this chapter of Crowsnest Pass history.
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Fox, with a local engine crew, were the first agency to arrive on scene, where locals and residents were already swatting at perimeter fires.

“Almost the entire department helped on almost all of our apparatus. It was a really involved fire for personnel and our resources,” says Fox. “Everything from fire suppression to running around for different resources, such as water, firefighting foam, general equipment… It was all hands on deck.”

The Coleman wildfire was the first of this grandeur for Crowsnest Pass local 17-year-old Dawson Morency, who has been serving on the municipal fire department for two years now.

He was in class at Crowsnest Consolidated High School when his radio went off alerting him of a fire in Bushtown, the first and smaller fire of the two that occurred that day.

By the time that brush fire was under control and he and other local crew were cleaning up the hotspots, they received the call for the Coleman wildfire.

It was Morency’s first time fighting a fire of this size.

“I was on a few fires before. I did partake in the recent fire we had at the mine site,” says Morency, referring to the old building on the Greenhill Mine Property north of Blairmore that caught fire this summer. “This was my first real brush/grass fire of this scale.”
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Morency worked 11.5 hours that evening before he took a break from his task, removing railroad ties and setting up a line of defence to prevent the fire from spreading.

“It was a while, but at the same time it was one of those things where it didn’t feel that long. After the first call, you have the adrenaline going. You have a job and you’re focused on getting that job done. You’re not focused on the time, you’re not worried about anything else at that moment,” he says.

Days after working the fire, Dawson still seems to be exhilarated from the experience, left with a sense of accomplishment, growth, and a sincere passion for what he does.

“It was interesting. It was definitely an experience, that’s for sure. I was working with a bunch of people that I trusted great amounts, so I felt safe the whole time,” he says. “I think it’s one of those things where there’s no way to explain it other than I just love it. It’s less of a job and more of something that if I ever got the chance and I could dedicate my life to, I would,” he says.

With over 35 years working as a firefighter, and about 20 among that as a fire chief, now-retired Jamie Margetak is certainly no stranger to the adrenaline rush of fighting a fire. Margetak was asked by Wayne Robutka, also a retired firefighter and the former fire chief of Coleman, to assist in the efforts against the Coleman Wildfire.
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“Wayne called me up and asked if I could give a hand because it was heading towards Coleman, and he asked if I could get anyone else,” says Margetak, who phoned several other friends and acquaintances that he knew from his days in the fire department, all of whom agreed to help.
He and his crew of about half a dozen retired firefighters arrived on-site at approximately 5 p.m. that evening and worked late into the evening right above Volker Stevin, ensuring that the fire didn’t jump the highway there.

It was out of a love and concern for their community that they lent their time, expertise and resources.

“Our guys only went out because we knew it was a disaster and they were willing to help and protect their communities. They were there,” says Margetak.

Margetak and a lot of the firefighters that he brought in had the unique experience of working the Lost Creek Fire of 2003.

“Lost Creek was way back in the bush and it was a lot slower coming into town. This thing was going so fast. It’s Prairie grass and it travels really fast,” he says, reminiscing and comparing the old fire that threatened and terrified Hillcrest.

The “out of control” status of the fire continued through the night into the next morning, and that was when 26-year-old Alex Rutherford got the call to come down to assist with the Coleman Wildfire. Rutherford is on the helitack crew with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and was up in Calgary when she got the call at 5:30 in the morning.
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Her face covered in dirt and soot, still in her mustard top and khaki bottoms that is characteristic of Alberta Wildfire, Rutherford takes a break at the Blairmore Ranger Station four days after the start of the fire which, by this point, was classified as “under control.”

She had arrived in Crowsnest Pas just before 8 a.m. on October 18 with her crew of two other firefighters, relieving the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry crewmembers that worked through the night.

“We talked to the crew that had been there overnight, talked to the incident commander at the time to get the scene, the fire behaviour,” she says, adding that they were assigned to control two spot fires on a slope north of Highway 3.

Over her three years of working with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Rutherford has worked on about a dozen fires, but most of them were what she called “initial attack” fires, which are extinguished by the next day.

The particular challenge for her crew with this fire, she says, was finding consistent sources of water.

“A fire truck was a high commodity, so we had a relay tank, which was 1,000 gallons. A water truck would come, fill it up, then the water truck would get called to do something more important. Say our water was running low and our pumps started to struggle, couple times we called in the helicopter because they were bucketing. They would get a bucket of water from the river, drop it in the relay tank, fill it back up and we can keep going,” she says.

Another challenge she found was with the terrain, where the surface was different throughout the whole fire in various areas. The fire also penetrated very deeply in landscapes where there was organic material under the layers of shale rock, requiring Rutherford and other crews to dig down with a hoe to reach the underground hot spots.

The situation became quite tense at times when fighting the fire, but Rutherford says she never felt frightened and remains dedicated and impassioned by her job with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

“There are two types of people in this job. The people that are kind of adrenaline chasers - I think a lot of them are that - but then I think there are the people that are just content and take things as they come. I feel I’m one of those people. I don’t really get riled up,” she says. “I know that if a situation was legitimately dangerous and scary, we would never be put in that situation. So every time I go into a fire, I’m not scared because I know that nothing terrible is going to happen. Always conscientious, paying attention, but not worried.”

Now, a week after its ignition, having penetrated deep underground, the fire is still not classified as extinguished, but it is under control. It is the collective effort and cooperation of each person and organization that helped the community successfully overcome a situation that had the potential to end terribly.
October 25th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. ###
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